Telling History in Print and in Digital Form

During the lecture titled “Telling history in print and in digital form”, three public historians hailing from the United States of America elaborated on their experiences in using either digital or printed media to reach a certain public for their research. Firstly, Charles Romney explained briefly the app he developed to give a new approach to the history of cities. He developed a smartphone app that – according to your location in a particular city – gives you information on your surrounding buildings and landmarks. Secondly, he addressed the problem of time. According to Romney, a singular chronology is insufficient to represent the complexity of a given history. He pleaded for the use of multiple chronologies, implemented by the public historian to “create” more complexity for the told history. This was a very interesting point, since most people always expect a chronological exhibit. Nevertheless it is very reasonable that various groups have different ideas, which can result in all kinds of chronologies. Recently historians tend to deviate from the use of one single chronology. However, an anachronic use of time, as Romney called it, makes place for a more complex history and it allows that voices can be heard within the exhibit. This view on how to create an exhibit is therefore a very valuable asset that deserves more consideration than it had up to this point.

The second public historian behind the microphone was Aaron Shapiro, who presented the class project he worked on for the U.S. Forest Service Heritage Stewardship Group. Shapiro and his students conducted research of the past of the U.S. Forest Service by interviewing its (former) members in commemoration of the centennial of the weeks act. Last but not least, Jennifer Koslow showed us the website preceding her upcoming book addressing public health exhibits in the early twentieth century. Numerous questions were asked during this lecture, ‘how can we create a public policy for public history?’, ‘how is this public policy and exhibitions a part of mass production?’, …

They were three very interesting lectures. Nonetheless, they raised a few questions and caused a number of remarks. In two out of the three lectures – being those of Shapiro and Koslow – the projects that were presented seemed to be targeted at a very limited, and mostly academic, public. In the case of Shapiro’s class project, the website they created seems especially interesting for the academic audience of the university’s course on environmental history and for the members and followers of the U.S. Forest Service Heritage Stewardship Group. On the other hand, it seems rather out of reach for a public outside of those main target groups. In the case of Koslow, her website is targeted at the same audience that would read her books, being researchers and followers of subjects similar to the early twentieth century public health exhibits, students and overall people with academic backgrounds. In our short-lived public history tradition at Ghent University, we’ve been taught public history helps academic historians target a broader public in multiple layers of society. In the case of the two aforementioned historians, we can see how their projects can improve the communication of their research to people who would be interested in their academic publications, maybe brainstorming about how to present such research to a broader audience could be an interesting line of thought as well?

Also in Aaron Shapiro’s lecture, we noticed a – for us – interesting usage of terminology. He often referred to the U.S. Forest Service Heritage Stewardship Group as the “client” of him and his class, and emphasized the need to confer with their client to ask for their input in the conducted research. This implies a focus on the functionality of public history, something that is not always as present in the classes we are used to. Later in the lecture, chairman Patrick Moore addressed the students in the lecture hall, asking who wanted to have the job, before emphasizing on the importance of learning specific skills that are valued on the job market. This was a particularly interesting approach to the field of public history, leaving the sheer academic aspects behind for a moment and focusing on the skills and traits required to achieve in the professional field of public history.

Overall, this was an extremely interesting lecture. Particularly interesting was to see how scholars on the other side of the big ocean deal with the questions of history on digital platforms vs. history in print.

Julie Devlieghere

Evelyne Lemahieu

Ruben Vandael